River can kill him, or she can save him. Either way, nothing will ever be the same.
The person leaps up, there’s a hand across my mouth before I can even scream, the other arm wrapped tight around me, and my brain is exploding—instantly—with shock and horror and fear and anger and confusion CONFUSION CONFUSION because who would just ATTACK another person and—
“Who’s with you? Huh?!”
The voice! Growling and sick and deep and broken and stinking.
Every strange and scary thing I’ve ever half heard said about XYs comes bursting into my head, but it cannot be. It cannot be.
“Don’t make me hurt you, junior!” vile breath threatens.
The grip tightens. The grip HURTS.
WHY would this person be doing this?!
WHY WOULD ANY PERSON DO THIS?!
So maybe this person is crazy, so maybe this person has taken drugs, so maybe whatever sickness this person has got is causing this madness—
“STOP IT!” My cry muffled wordless by a stinking, sweaty palm.
I get shaken. I get squeezed. It HURTS. So who cares who this is and why? So NO WAY. So I kick. Kick, kick, kick. Boot against shin. Boot against shin. I get another shake and squeeze, then dragged back so fast my boots can’t get to shins, but I stamp down hard on a cloven hoof, and the stinking breath lets out a growl that ends in a moan of pain.
“DON’T MAKE ME HURT YOU.”
Who would say a thing like that?!
I plant another kick back hard. SHIN!
There is a roar of pain. And words that roar louder:
I go limp. It’s not that no one swears “to God”—some of the granmummas still do. It’s that no one, no one… Who would threaten to KILL a person?
“You on your own?”
The grip releases just a little—and I feel it: I feel how weak this person really is. One glance down at the bicep on the arm of the hand that’s pinned across my face tells me this body is used to hard work—but sickness trembles in those gripping arms.
“Are ya? Well, are ya?!”
I nod my head. My ribs hurt. My face hurts. My mouth is dry with fear and shock—but my eyes and nose? They’re running. With anger. I feel angry.
The strange, sick, nasty, wild person hesitates…then releases me.
I wipe the trail of tears and snot from my face.
“I do a mile in six point eight. I press sixty.”
I have no idea what this means. I have no idea how to respond.
“So don’t you bother trying to run, and you should definitely not bother trying to fight me. You will lose.”
The creature wipes my snot off the back of its hand, looking up and down the forest road. Then it looks at me. “Wait a second—have you got a transmitter in?! Your tag—”
It lurches forward, grabbing my upper arms and squeezing them.
“What, did they stick it in your leg? They did that to me once—”
“Get off me!” I pull away as it grabs at my thighs.
“Shut up! God, you little screecher! No wonder you’re not tagged. You ain’t even on T-jabs, are you? How old are you, kid? Hey! You’re okay now! Okay?”
The insane question settles it. This person is an unknown kind of person. A person who hurts and scares and then asks how you are. A person I must get away from. I nod at it, sniffing hard.
“Then quit with the blubbering, kid.”
No one, not even Granmumma Kate, would tell another person to stop crying. Anyone who doesn’t know that is definitely an unknown kind of person. Maybe not even a person at all.
“Name’s Mason,” the creature says, holding out a hand.
Courtesy dictates a hand held out is a hand to be shaken, that the cheek of the person holding out that hand is to be kissed. I take the hand and, swallowing revulsion with my own snot, lean in to kiss.
“What the hell are you doing?!” it says, shoving me away.
It. That’s what this is. No human being I have ever met would behave like this.
“Where did you ’scape from anyway? You weren’t hell bound, was you? Come on! What unit you from? What d’you call yourself? I’m not gonna tell anyone, am I? Who’d I tell?! Why’d I tell?! How long you been out for? You don’t look that sick. Did you get proper sick yet? Where’d you get that horse from? I mean, that is an actual horse, right?”
I nod. I have to get away from it. I have to think. I have to stay calm—and keep it calm, that’s what I decide—because something in its ranting, in its questions asked with no wait for an answer, reminds me of my own granmumma, whose temper can feed like a fire on any sort of disagreement.
“An actual horse… I thought they’d be smaller…” it says, almost to itself, contemplating in amazement. “How’d you even steal that?!”
I just smile politely. The smile feels wonky on my face.
“God’s sake…” It grins at me. “How are you alive, li’l thief? Hah. How’d you manage it? You’re a walkin’ freakin’ miracle, ain’t you? You got anything to eat and drink in that bag, have you? You got water?” It holds out its filthy paw, its hand making gimme! baby grabs in the air. “Come on now, little brother. Don’t hold out on me.”
Little brother. Brother… I slide the backpack from my shoulders and it snatches it.
“Siddown, bro,” it tells me.
Bro? I crumple to the ground where I stand. It plonks itself down too—close. Grabbing-distance close.
“See now, we gotta share and share alike, ain’t we?” it says, ripping open the backpack. “Us ’scaped ones, that’s what we gotta do. We’re brothers in the face of death now, brothers in the face of death… Oh, do NOT tell me you’ve been eating this stuff,” it says, holding up a bunch of freshly dug carrots. “KID! This is goddamn filthy jungle poison, that’s what. You eat this stuff, you’re dead in two seconds, not ten. Get me?!”
It shakes the carrots in my face, then flings them aside. Soil still on them, but Milpy doesn’t care, comes plodding up to munch, cart trundling behind, and the creature jumps back to its hoof feet. It looks around, then staggers to grab a branch—a poor choice, so rotten looking it’ll probably crumble immediately, but still…Milpy, munching. No one hits her, not even Lenny. She just gets shouted at. She doesn’t often listen. I have no idea what Milpy would do if someone struck her—only that she would NOT like it.
“No!” I can’t help myself. “She won’t hurt you!”
The creature eyes the huge power of Milpy, chomping.
“She’s just hungry!”
“That so?” it says, watching Milpy crunch.
Painful seconds tick.
“That’s a she horse?” it asks.
I nod and watch the creature watch Milpy—Milpy watching it right back, her nostrils flared, scenting, her ears unable to decide between laying back in irritation (because—really!—what is this nonsense on the way home?!) and pricked, twitching, listening (strange it, strange smell, general strangeness). Still: fresh carrots?! Too good!
“What’s that you got in that wagon anyway?” it asks, pointing at the cart.
It picks up an apple. It examines the apple. It bites it. It spits it out.
“Brother, these ain’t apples!” it says, shaking its head at me, wiping its mouth. A convincingly human look of disgust and pity on its face.
With watchful eyes on Milpy, it sits back down. Places that branch down on the road, and I can see, for sure, that it is rotten—orange-and-white fungus all over it, wood lice tumbling out, escaping from its broken ends. I’ve been hit by kisses harder than that.
It rummages again, trying the next compartment in the backpack. Pulls out a cloth-wrapped package, unwraps it.
“And what is this?” it asks.
How could anyone not know these things?! It’s sniffing the loaf of bread. My cousins’ gorgeous sourdough. Fresh baked.
“Don’t look like bread.”
It sniffs some more, bites down slowly, tears away a mouthful. It chews, eyes on me.
“’S disgustin’,” it mumbles, but it keeps on chewing, biting off more, like it’s ravenous, while the other greedy hand searches, finds my water bottle, and…suddenly it tosses the loaf at me, and I catch it.
Regret that immediately: shows so clearly I am watching, alert.
It eyes me.
“Why doncha take a little bite of that yourself?”
Terror alone would stop me. I have also been stuffed full of cake at my cousins’ house, but I have got to get out of here, so I pull a chunk of bread off—away from the creature’s bread-mauling area—and take a bite.
It, Milpy, and I chew.
Me and Milpy are watching it.
It is watching us.
It unscrews my water bottle, sniffs…
“Water,” I whisper.
It glugs—and glugs.
“Don’t taste right neither,” it mutters—and my heart skips a beat as it pulls my knife out of the backpack. My good knife, my favorite supersharp blade that was given to me by Kate. Belonged to my great granpappa.
It releases the blade—seems to know just how—and holds it up. The blade of the knife shines true in the late, dying sun.
I feel my whole body tense up so hard any fearful shaking stops.
“Was you thinking to stab someone, little brother? That what you was thinkin’ of?”
That’s a thing men did, isn’t it? That’s what I’ve heard. Kate says women did too, but Mumma says there are statistics. Men stabbed people, shot people, killed anyone. Prisons rammed full of them and still they did not stop.
“’Spect you’d like to stab me right now, eh?”
It makes a tutting sound and waggles the knife at me.
“It ain’t the way, li’l brother. It ain’t the way. I mean…I guess sometimes it maybe has to be the way, right? We’ve all seen that. But—”
Something in the backpack catches its eye. It pulls it out, the jar of honey, holds it up with a puzzled look.
“Think so?! I’ve heard of that!”
It drops the knife—blade open—on the other side of its body and manages to get the jar open. Scoops out a fingerful and sniffs it. Looks suspiciously at me.
“You first,” it says, offering the fingerful.
Its hands… They are so filthy.
It grunts. “Brother, we are both gonna die anyways,” it says, honey running down its finger. “Welcome to the jungle.”
With my mouth, I take the honey from its finger.
The touching of it, the creature, makes me shudder.
“That good, huh?” it says and delves another filthy finger into the jar, shoves it into its mouth, and sucks it.
Its eyeballs roll back. “Sweet!” it says. “That is good, ain’t it? So, kid, you gonna talk to me?”
I can see huge beads of sweat popping out on its forehead. I am sweating too. My sweat is fear; its sweat is sickness—pouring out of it. It keeps eating though, grabbing the bread back, dipping chunks into the honey jar, swigging at the water—and all the while mumbling talk and questions at me. I don’t answer. I see streaks of blood in the bready mix of chewed-up food in its mouth, and it winces when it swallows, rubbing at its throat. And its stomach? I hear loud gurgling and churning, smell the stink of vile farts.
“So how come you ain’t sick? I been loose FIVE WHOLE DAYS—got sick DAY ONE. Had to drink goddamn filthy water got green stuff growing in it. Green stuff! Veg-et-able material growing in the freaking water! Brother, come on, might as well name your unit—and don’t go telling me you’re Alpha material, because I know a Beta boy when I see one…but how come you ain’t on the T-jabs? You oughtta be by now! Kid, you got X-S body fat. X-S! Round the ass—and your pecs! Serious!” it says, jabbing my left breast.
I flinch and shrink and twitch to run.
“Whoa! Don’t get all like that! Them flabby pecs is probably what’s keepin’ you alive! You’re probably digestin’ yourself!” it laughs, ripping off bread and dunking it into the honey.
It raises its eyes from the jar, studying me as it chews.
“Hey, it doesn’t matter at all now, does it?”
I study it right back. I…say nothing. My mind has landed in a bad place. My mind has landed in a place where the thought that cannot be is.
“D’you even know where you are, Beta boy? ’Cause I sure as hell don’t! Hellhole, brother! In-fin-it-y of it! Know what that means? Endless, my brother. This goddamn jungle goes on forever.”
It doesn’t. It goes to the village. I’m no great runner, but I think, if I can remain calm, I can outrun this sick thing.
“Yup, we is lost…lost and damned and done for. So this is just great, ain’t it? This is juuuuuuuust ber-illiant. Two runnin’ dead men sharing a last supper and only one of us got anything to say.”
“I just want to go home,” I whisper. I am telling it to myself. I am willing it to happen.
“Yeah, I’ll bet you do. Ah, HELL—it ain’t me you’re scared of at all, is it? It’s the wimmin, ain’t it? Oh God! You seen them? Have you seen wimmin?!”
I nod the tiniest of nods. I feel physically sick—but not as sick as the creature. It’s rubbing its belly, sweat popping, hairy face grimmer than grim.
“You seen wimmin…around here?”
I nod an even tinier nod.
“Je-sus.” It wipes a shaking hand across its filthy hair, eyes darting. “They’ll kill you quicker than the jungle, if they don’t—Kid! Oh God, oh brother mine…did they…mess with you? No shame here, brother. If them wimmin touched you, it ain’t your fault. We all know that. We all been told what wimmin’ll do to any ’scaped male they find—and if they done it to you, IT AIN’T YOUR FAULT. No shame on you, no blame on you. IT AIN’T YOUR FAULT. You listen to Mason now.”
I shut my eyes, just to make it STOP for one moment, but the sound of the thing retching makes me open them again—it’s doubled over, gripping its belly, head sweat falling like raindrops.
“Get out of here,” it says, voice twisted with pain.
I edge myself up, onto my knees, then one foot to the ground, knuckles to the concrete, willing power into my legs. It looks up at me, fighting whatever agonies I can hear battling in its guts.
“D’you hear me? Don’t let the wimmin get you!”
It doubles up again with a horrific groan. My legs tense with sprint intention.
It vomits—bread and honey and water and…blood? I should run. I should run—but, even in a nightmare, who leaves a sick person?
“Go,” it says, wiping its mouth. “Brother: die free.”